A glance at Robert Scanlon’s résumé reveals some of the biggest names in cable television: HBO, ESPN, the NFL Network. As common as those channels are in American households these days, they all had humble beginnings. And Scanlon has been at the root of each.
“My career path—through no grand design, believe me—has been a series of what have turned out to be very successful network startups, launches, and rebrands,” Scanlon says.
Scanlon ’74 joined Home Box Office in 1977, during the station’s first few years of national distribution via satellite. At that time it was an extension of Manhattan Cable, owned by Time-Life Inc., and he recalls being the only customer using RCA’s Satcom1 satellite, which occupied three of 21 transponders. By the time he joined the fledgling ESPN in 1979 as one of its first 35 employees, the market hadn’t expanded much.
“It was very low penetration back in those days,” he says. “Most of cable was just retransmitting local signals.”
That would change during the ’80s, though, and Scanlon helped lead the way at ESPN. He describes the first half of the decade as a “free-for-all” in terms of the techniques being used. For example, he recalls cutting teases during the NCAA basketball championships using Van Halen’s popular single “Jump.”
“We didn’t pay any license fee!” he recalls with incredulity. “Certainly the band didn’t care! It was off the album 1984, and they were thrilled to have their music on the air.”
That “anything goes” environment also allowed for the creation of now commonplace techniques in sports coverage, such as cutting away from one game to another with more compelling action.
“We didn’t ask the NCAA if we could do it. We just did it,” Scanlon says. “We’d say ‘Look, this game’s a blowout. Let’s go over there. There’s 30-seconds on the clock; the game’s tied. Let’s go see what happens.’”
“I’m very proud that we kind of changed the way sports was televised in terms of getting people to the best action there was at the time,” he says.
In the 2000s, Scanlon helped get the NFL Network off the ground and joined Discovery Communications, where in 2011 he became senior vice president of Velocity, a network he helped rebrand to target affluent men with a passion for cars. He is now general manager of Velocity. This fall, the network premiered a four-part documentary two years in the making that follows actor Patrick Dempsey in his bid to race in the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Scanlon’s work at Velocity is the continuation of well over 30 years in the industry, during which he’s won four Tellys and nine Emmy Awards, including one for outstanding live sports series. Whether his career has had a grand design or not, he still thrills in the process of creating and rebranding: homing in on the audience, defining the economic model, developing the image and attitude of a network, selecting the on-air talent, and refining the programming.
“I often tell people it’s the only fun really left in this business. And that’s not entirely true; I’m being tongue in cheek. But it’s not entirely untrue, either, because it is a blast to do.”